It is a well-documented fact that writers can be dismissive, hypercritical, and downright insulting when it comes to the work of their peers and predecessors. Juvenal, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Sayers and her nemesis Edmund Wilson, Dorothy Parker, John Logan…the list is long and spans centuries. Some of the critiques are valid, in their way; many are wickedly funny, which doesn’t remedy the unkindness of the barbs. Most writers who have been writing and presenting or publishing their work for awhile will have encountered some less-than-generous “feedback” from other writers. Given human nature, such responses are probably inevitable.

In the mediated circle of the voluntary critique group such as may be found among MFA programs or community writers’ groups, the group or mentor often establishes protocols for sharing work–methods of responding to creative efforts that avoid too-harsh criticism, ad hominem attacks, or dismissive/discouraging comments. Once your writing is out in the world in whatever public form (print, slam performance, live reading, video, online, etc), however, the best advice is sometimes “don’t read the comments.”

Many agendas may drive the urge to bash particular writers or their works, among these envy, attention, pride, status, self-preservation, righteous indignation, or a sense that one needs to scramble to make space for oneself in an already small environment (“the literary world”). Even, dare I say, ignorance. I could speculate on reasons for unkindness until the proverbial cows come dawdling home, but I suppose it can be attributed to a kind of social Darwinism. People can be mean-spirited when threatened. Though exactly how the writing of poetry poses a threat to other poets remains a mystery to me.

Maybe I am a Pollyanna (entirely possible), but although I can recall some incidents and critiques that have stung me, there have been far more instances of generosity from fellow writers. While contemplating writing this post I sat back and decided to count how many fellow writers have extended courtesy, respect, useful advice, helpful criticism, networking and publication leads, encouragement, and the sense that I’ve “been seen”–acknowledgment as a writer–and I found the list was long. I considered listing names, but there are so many…and I was afraid I’d inadvertently overlook someone. I consider this an excellent “problem” to have.

Granted, some stings have been…memorable. However, I’ve been writing and publishing poetry and related prose since the early 1980s, so there have been many years during which I’ve had the joy of connecting with other writers in generous ways. Writing is both a large community and a small one, depending upon where I am in my own life: local at times, semi-isolated other times, and then–thanks to social media platforms, with which I have love/hate relationships–national and international!

As I get ready to pull back a bit from my work in the realm of higher education, I hope that the lessons I have learned about being generous to my students, gently encouraging while pointing out areas to keep working on, will stay with me. My feeling about poetry is that there’s certainly room for more of it in a world which can be harsh, and that acknowledging other humans’ urge to express their awe, fear, grief, passion, love, anger, and perspective won’t actually harm many of us.

Thus, to all of the fellow writers and artists living and dead who have been generous to me: Bounteous gratitude. I’ll keep trying to pay it forward.


Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections revolves in part around a family’s interconnected–and expanding–circles of influence (of harm, mostly, but also of steps toward healing) as the “patriarch” begins to lose his health and independence. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario for many of us who have aged parents. I often hear anecdotes from friends and colleagues about how an elderly parent’s decline tears apart family connections and lately have been living the problem a bit more close at hand.

So I am mulling about how we are interconnected, and also about how we decide to narrate our connections: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others. That’s the poet/observer in me mulling; but I also want to find out more about the psychological side of the equation, so I recently read Christakis’ and Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, which takes a social-science and statistical look at what connects human beings to other human beings. 330px-Broad_chain_closeup

Writers are often our keenest social observers, and as it happens, Hungarian poet and writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a story (“Chains”) that more or less posited the six degrees of separation theory back in 1929. Franzen’s novels tend to explore how even seemingly-minor disruptive or dysfunctional human relationships create butterfly-effect chaos among those connected to it–even among people not closely connected to the ‘disrupter.’

Christakis and Fowler examine much more than the six-degrees theory, such as how those human connections build themselves into social cascades, cultural norms, support systems, clans, families, political parties, and economic outcomes. On the one hand, these claims seem obvious: of course our relationships are based upon shared connections, and of course those relationships have impacts upon our lives. We know this intuitively, but now scientists want to give us proof.

Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe offers “hard science” studies (though based upon theoretical computer- or math-based simulations) in physics and biology that suggest random disturbances, or chaos, can create chain or even lattice-like behavior. He suggests that if molecules or genes behave the way the simulations do, the cosmos may continually undergo a sort of self-organization that leads to forming connections.

Hence: life. Or life as we experience it. In which small differences in initial conditions can be amplified into transformational events that do not affect anyone in exactly the same way.

That’s more or less the butterfly effect, but it could not happen in social situations among human beings if we were not so interconnected or interdependent. Social beings require other social beings as support systems: that’s how humans work (with, naturally, the occasional outlier).

butterflyOur poets, playwrights, and our fiction writers–the narrators of human existence–understand isolation and community in non-scientific but no less valuable and authentic ways. They have been telling us for thousands of years the many ways we are connected.

Maybe what the scientists should do next is read hundreds of years of great literature as evidence of how social networks shape our lives. Science can learn as much from the humanities as the humanities have learned from scientists…

What we, as observant human beings in a chaotic world, intuitively understand.